There was no shortage of harrowing moments in the first episode of The Long Shadow, ITV’s drama about Peter Sutcliffe and his victims. It was grim enough to see Emily Jackson (played by Katherine Kelly) resolutely enduring the indignities of sex work even before her fatal encounter with Sutcliffe, and to remember that this poor woman was a real person. But good as it was, I couldn’t help feeling the programme was less harrowing than the sum of its parts.
This was probably because it followed too closely the rhythms of the standard TV crime drama, especially in its focus on Toby Jones’s dogged and capable cop DCS Dennis Hoban. With his Tetley Tea Folk accent and fondness for Emmerdale Farm, Hoban was a thoroughly reassuring presence, fulfilling the familiar TV role of the dedicated detective who will ensure that justice is done in the end.
The real Dennis Hoban certainly deserves to be celebrated for taking the murders of sex workers more seriously than some of his colleagues and shrewdly joining the dots that suggested a serial killer was at work. But as I watched the programme I couldn’t help comparing it with another, much more unsettling, work that was also inspired by the Sutcliffe murders.
Between 1999 and 2002 the writer David Peace published four novels in quick succession: the Red Riding Quartet. Each book was named after the year in which it was set – 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 – and dealt with police brutality and corruption in West Yorkshire against the backdrop of the Sutcliffe investigation. Peace’s novels portray a force so rife with bent coppers that it makes Line of Duty look like Hamish Macbeth.
You only have to read a few pages of one of Peace’s novels to see that they take a very different stance from The Long Shadow. In the TV show a cop says dismissively of one victim that “she died because she was a prostitute”, and is rebuked by Hoban. In the first chapter of Peace’s novel 1977, a policeman “walks up to Karen Burns, white, 23, convicted prostitute, drug addict, mother of two, and smacks her in the gob” as he tries to elicit information about her lover (while “Jimmy Savile [is] playing 25 years of Jubilee hits” on the radio in the background).
Later on, in pursuit of the same man, another cop threatens to rape a woman he encounters so that she will stay out of the way of the arrest. There are no rebukes from an upright chief superintendent.
Peace dedicated 1977 “to the victims of the crimes attributed to the Yorkshire Ripper, and to their families … [and] to the men and women who tried to stop those crimes”, while stressing that “this book remains a work of fiction”. Peace plays with the facts in his quartet: Sutcliffe is renamed Peter Williams, and the victims’ names are also changed, with the details of their lives and deaths altered too.
But where The Long Shadow, following complaints from the victims’ families and others about the use of the word “Ripper” in the programme’s proposed title, avoids overuse of the nickname – “That name being attached to Peter Sutcliffe creates a dark brand around a man who doesn’t deserve that attention,” scriptwriter George Kay has said – the word “Ripper” resounds through Peace’s pages.
In the 1980 volume, the word is a constant presence in the stream-of-consciousness narration of Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter, who is haunted by the failure of the Ripper investigation – although, in a typically macabre Peace twist, this is because he has made a pact with God: if he catches the Ripper, his wife, who has suffered several miscarriages, will give birth to a healthy child. The playground chant of “Ripper! Ripper! Ripper!”; Leeds United fans singing “Ripper 13, police nil” at matches; these refrains keep sounding in Hunter’s head.
David Peace knows it was impossible to avoid hearing the word “Ripper” being shouted or whispered in West Yorkshire at that time: he was there. Peace was born in 1967 and grew up in Ossett, near Dewsbury.
In an article for The New Yorker in 2013, he recalled being a lonely 10-year-old obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, who decided to set up a private eye’s office in the garden shed. “In the early hours of June 26 1977,” he wrote, “I was five miles away and sound asleep in my safe little bed when 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald was subjected to repeated violent blows about her head with a blunt instrument in a playground in Leeds, 100 yards from her own bed … I had my first case.”
The young David filled a scrapbook with newspaper cuttings about the Ripper and photographs of his victims. There was no agreement among witnesses as to what the killer looked like, and in schools it was common for boys to exchange taunts along the lines of “your dad’s the Ripper!”. David’s grisly imagination pursued the idea to its logical conclusion: for a time his father, whose work as a junior school headmaster often kept him out late, was his number one suspect.
When the Ripper apparently sent a cassette tape to the police revealing himself to have a North-eastern accent (it was exposed as a hoax some years later), David was able to exonerate his father. But “it was bad news for ‘Jock’ Carter, the science teacher with the Wearside accent, whose comments on my last exam paper were now stuck in my scrapbook marked ‘Suspects & Evidence.’”
As the years passed and the Ripper’s tally of victims edged upwards and began to embrace women other than sex workers – and with the police seemingly at sea – David lost his initial excitement and began to fear for his mother’s life, begging her not to leave the house. “My sister used to say her prayers out loud every night, and she would always say, ‘Dear God, please don’t let the Ripper kill my mum,’” Peace told the Guardian in 2001. “Because of the way she was, she’d have to say it 10 times. If she lost count, she’d have to start again. It did my head in.”
On January 5 1981 his father woke him with the words: “They’ve caught him.” David, then aged 13, bunked off school to join the “baying crowd” that assembled for Sutcliffe’s first appearance in court in Dewsbury.
Peace represents a generation scarred by the malevolent, hidden presence of the Ripper, at once bogeyman and genuine threat. After studying at Manchester Polytechnic, he embarked on his first attempt to write about the Ripper, but foundered: “Manchester at that time was a very unpleasant place to live. I was lonely and unemployed, and I found researching the Yorkshire Ripper utterly depressing.”
Unemployment prompted Peace to work abroad as an English teacher, eventually settling in Japan, where he met his wife, Izumi. Distance enabled him to revisit in his mind the Yorkshire of his childhood and young adulthood.
He wrote his first novel, 1974, purely for his own satisfaction, researching 1970s Yorkshire using the microfiched British newspapers in the Japanese public libraries; his father persuaded him to submit it for publication, and the small independent firm Serpent’s Tail published the book in 1999.
The Ripper was an inspiration for that first book but not a presence in it: it features a young journalist investigating the case of a 10-year-old girl found murdered and mutilated, with a pair of swan’s wings stitched to her back. Peace decided to make the crimes in the subsequent books more realistic and less showy, more closely based on the Ripper’s crimes and other real murders: “We’ve created a society with enough real horrors to make stitching swan’s wings on little girls redundant,” he said.
That first book does introduce most of the characters – the corrupt cops and their pet journalists – who are revealed, in the mazy course of the rest of the sequence, not only to consider themselves above the law but to be the controlling force behind most of the prostitution and pornography businesses in the West Riding, many of them also indulging some very dark sexual tastes with impunity. By the end of the quartet, nearly every character has been shot, hacked to death or immolated, died by suicide or gone mad.
It’s a gruesome vision of the world, and it comes as no surprise that Peace’s key influence is James Ellroy, whose LA Quartet also raises paranoia about conspiracies among the police to the level of art.
The melodramatic events are underpinned by Peace’s eerie evocation of the psychogeography of West Yorkshire, his characters being haunted with a sense of the area’s violent past, conjured up in his incantatory, mesmerically repetitious prose: he is a novelist who is perhaps best read out loud. Are these books modernist fiction disguised as crime thrillers, or vice versa? They are certainly unlike anything else in crime fiction.
Peace has always been clear that his books have a moral force. “The majority of British crime novels are a nonsense,” he said in 2010. “The Crime Writers’ Association has an award for a comic crime novel. How absurd to create this false picture of what reality is. Crime is not cosy, but brutal and destructive. It devastates people’s lives.”
The difficulty of showing this reality while respecting the privacy of the victims and their families clearly preys on Peace’s mind. In one of his later novels, Occupied City, set in Japan, an author trying to turn a real-life mass murder into a book is berated by the victims by means of a séance: “You define us as the victims… You damn us as the victims… Your every word is a failure, your every word is a lie! Failures and lies which murder all meaning!” It’s not hard to sense Peace wrestling with his conscience.
The Red Riding Quartet garnered more attention with each volume, and in 2003 Peace was named in Granta magazine’s prestigious list of the Best British Writers under 40, although he did not take part in the photo shoot: “I remember thinking, they look like a bunch of w______. They’re all London-based. They just seem a literary elite.” He has gone on to find further success with his novel about Brian Clough, The Damned Utd (filmed in 2009 with Michael Sheen) and a trilogy of offbeat crime novels set in Japan.
In 2009 Red Riding, a television series based on the books (although 1977 was left out for budgetary reasons) was broadcast on Channel Four: the veteran film critic David Thomson judged it “better than The Godfather”. David Morrissey plays a demonic cop in the series: compare that with the role Morrissey plays in The Long Shadow, the out-of-his-depth but fundamentally decent DCS Oldfield, and you’ll get the measure of the different attitudes of the two programmes.
Peace’s readers will note that the television series has an infinitesimally happier ending than the books do. The scriptwriter Tony Grisoni explained: “It was an emotional reaction … to two and a half years of being in this inferno that David Peace had constructed. David doesn’t save anyone. Whereas I needed to.”
The darkness of Peace’s vision has been criticised for its inaccuracy. “In Peace’s version, the police [are] up to their necks in pornography and corruption … In Peace’s version, corruption rather than a sorry incompetence delay the Ripper’s arrest. It isn’t true,” argued the journalist Ian Jack. “[It’s] a compelling fiction … that owes more to a dark imagination than the sorrowful facts.”
Well yes, it’s a warped version of the truth. But the authenticity that makes the books so exhilarating and compelling stems from the fact that, from childhood, Peace’s mind has been driven into dark places by the lurking figure of the Ripper. With such a figure at large for so long in the area they lived in, how many children must have grown up with a comparable sense that the forces of law and order were at best hopelessly weak and at worst malign and self-serving?
This quartet is still the great masterpiece of 21st-century British crime fiction so far – one of the few works of fiction I have ever read to give a sense of what evil is really like, and an excoriating portrait of an era damned by the fact that it allowed Sutcliffe to thrive.